Most moms are so busy chasing after their little ones, the thought of caring for a parent may seem far off. But for many older moms (those of us who’ve given birth after the age of thirty-five), the challenge of caring for aging parents while managing a young family may be very real. TV and radio personality Leeza Gibbons, a mother of three, knows this firsthand. Her own mother passed away last year after a decadelong battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Along the way, Gibbons, her father, and siblings took turns making sure her mom Jean was receiving the help she needed at every turn. But the process was emotionally and physically draining. That’s why Gibbons is trying to help other caregivers avoid burnout and find support in her new book, Take Your Oxygen First. Gibbons also started a foundation called Leeza’s Place to assist caregivers of memory loss disorder patients.
The Well Mom talked with Leeza via email about what all of us can learn from her experiences and why her message of self-care is applicable to anyone.
LG: I think most caregivers, in fact most women, need to keep in mind the words “stop achieving and start receiving.” We’re very good at accomplishing things. We’re very good at achieving things. We’re very good at solving problems. Most of us, however, are not so good at letting others help us or helping ourselves. We continue to need encouragement on ways to open up, let go, and receive. For caregivers this is essential. The process is stressing, depressing, and depleting. And in no time, you can lose yourself and find all that’s in place of where your life use to be is resentment, anger, frustration and exhaustion. The care-giving experience can cut your life short by ten years!
TWM: How did you come up with the title of the book?
LG: When I first became a mother I remember hearing the words from the flight attendant on an airplane to, “Put my oxygen mask on first, before I help others.” I rolled my eyes and did what most mothers intuitively did ... I assured myself that if my child did need me, I would absolutely give my child his or her oxygen before taking mine. Now I realize that, just as you only have a few seconds of mindful consciousness on an airplane in an emergency, we too have a finite amount of reserves in our own lives as caregivers. If we fail to nourish ourselves: mind, body, soul, and spirit, we will be of no use to anyone. The best way to love someone who needs you is simply to make sure you are whole, nourished, and prepared. And the best way to do that is to give yourself permission to matter and take your oxygen first. It is not a sign of weakness or selfishness, but rather a sign of personal strength and the ultimate considerate move.
TWM: Why did you want to share your mom’s story?
LG: The book of lessons I learned from my mother is an epic, many volumes long, which is still being written. I wanted to share the story of her life for many reasons, the most prevailing one of which was, she asked me to. I saw my mom disappear behind the veil of Alzheimer’s disease for over ten years. Her battle with the thief of memories was nothing short of remarkable. I learned from her grace and her courage, her resilience and her honesty, every day in that decade as I had in the decades before. They say that as we age we become more and more of who we are. That we can take off the mask that we used to wear to protect us from our insecurities, to present to the world who we thought we should be and we can get down to the business of who we truly are. My mother was a truth seeker, and the truth about her life was not pretty. She saw her mother, my granny, die of the same disease that took her from us. The day of my granny’s funeral, my mom had just been diagnosed. And as she looked into the eyes of her deceased mother, I looked into the eyes of my mother and I felt the stare of my children upon me. I knew then that my mother was right when she said, “Honey, you’re a storyteller. Now this is your story. Tell it, and make it count.”
TWM: What do caregivers need to learn?
LG: I think the lesson for all of us is how to stay present. How to stay fully engaged in the gift of the moment while still holding our boundaries and protecting our authentic selves. Over time I saw myself becoming more and more of the woman I’d hoped to be; more and more of a woman worthy of my mother’s legacy. I learned that it wasn’t always about letting go of the things over which I couldn’t control. It became about controlling the things that I could. And that’s a long list: my thoughts, my attitude, my point of view. No matter where you go, there you are. And when someone is sick, it becomes urgent to give yourself the gift of hopefulness. Because from that can come healing and help. While it’s true, we can’t always cure the diseases that take our loved ones from us, we can do a lot to remedy the toxicity that rests in its path.
If you commit yourself every day to walking with your pain, to sharing a cup of tea with your loneliness and despair, to asking your heartbreak what it can teach you, then you’ll find that you can coexist.
TWM: What can we teach children?
LG: I think that as moms of young children, when we see someone we love, a friend, a parent, a spouse, get sick or face a chronic disease or terminal illness, we tend to want to protect our kids from that pain. And yet, it’s almost always more valuable to allow them to experience us as we deal with our pain and suffering. It’s almost always more valuable to let them see our vulnerabilities and our commitment to survive. It’s almost always more valuable to allow them to witness our ability to breathe, believe, and receive. Those words have been very valuable to me. If we can be mindful of our breathing and take ten measured breaths, we can affect our physiology dramatically. Our oxygen can tell our brains to tell our bodies to slow down. It can aid in our digestion, it can aid in our stress management, and it can be a powerful weapon to shield us against disease. If we believe, then we know that no matter what the outcome we will be okay. People of faith tend to fare better in moment of crisis. It doesn’t really matter what you believe in. It can be fairies, magic, a supreme being, whatever. The fact that you believe in something outside of yourself, tends to give you more resilience. When you’re in a health crisis, that is the time to believe that you will be enough. And finally, the part that’s most difficult for most caregivers to receive. When we’re bound up in a ball of knotted tension no one can penetrate that surface and offer us anything. Its only when we dare to unclench our fists that we can receive the help that our family and friends are offering us and the wisdom of the universe. But first, we have to quiet our thoughts, create enough stillness in our minds so there is enough gap there for answers to come in.
TWM: How can we be helpful to a caregiver we know?
LG: How many times have you said or heard, “Let me know if I can do anything to help you”? The truth is when someone’s in a real crisis, they can’t even figure out the answer to hello, much less the words that make enough sense to give you direction about how to help them. So what I tell people is show up, step up and offer up something—anything! Walk the dog, open the mail, make a meal, burn a CD of music, do something but don’t wait for them to tell you what they need. On the other hand caregivers; it is a good idea to have a list so that if someone does ask you what you need, you can be very purposeful about it.
The main advice that I give people is when someone’s hurting, don’t try to talk them out of their pain. Acknowledge their hurt and allow them to feel it. Yes, there may be someone in the world who hurts more, maybe the loved one who died is in a better place … those things don’t really matter at the moment of greatest grief impact. What matters is the pain of this very moment. Yes, perhaps there’s a great lesson in the suffering but for now, allow them just to feel that pain. It can be most helpful just to have someone bear witness to our hurt.
Photo courtesy of The Well Mom. Originally published on The Well Mom.